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Matthew E. May

Quality Insider

An Exercise in Observation: Practicing Your Genchi Genbutsu

Look at this!

Published: Thursday, June 19, 2014 - 10:40

One of my all-time favorite quotes is from UK-based urban designer Ben Hamilton-Baillie, a master of designing shared space intersections: “If we observed first, designed second, we wouldn’t need most of the things we build.” 

The Japanese phrase for what Hamilton-Baillie is talking about is "genchi genbutsu," which roughly translated means “go look and see.” It is a principle widely practiced in many Japanese organizations. The goal is to build skill in viewing problems and challenges from different perspectives, much like artists, sculptors, and photographers do when they look at their subject from every possible angle to enhance their ability to artistically render “the truth.”

I believe that the ability to survive and thrive in this world of increasing excess and unnecessary complexity lies in our ability to make sense of it, and to craft elegant solutions and stories through the tools and skills at our disposal. To do that, we must become better observers, better fact-finders, and better detectives.

To become better detectives, do what New York’s finest do: analyze art.

New York Police Department Assistant Chief Diana Pizzuti says, “In New York, the extraordinary is so ordinary to us, we’re always looking to become even more aware as observers.” To do so, the NYPD sends newly minted detectives to the Frick Museum in Manhattan.

The technique is not as strange as it first appears: Solving crimes successfully requires careful attention to both detail, and the bigger picture to find the connections and patterns between seemingly unconnected clues.

Here’s how it works: Frick Museum educators coach detectives on how to examine a painting in detail. Examination time is limited to simulate the initial scan and quick analysis required when arriving at an actual crime scene. The process is, first, one of observation and description, moving from foreground to background, followed by analysis and conclusion.

How does that apply to assessing a crime scene, you ask? By widening the circle of observation to include a broader perimeter, detectives consider a wider range of clue sources to examine. One NYPD captain tells the story of a fleeing suspect who fell to the pavement while racing across rooftops to avoid capture. Frick training prompted the officer to stop, take in the entire scene, and widen his search perimeter beyond just the site of impact; he located an automobile on which detectives found palm prints that aided in reconstructing and mapping the intended escape route.

A 15-minute exercise

You can try this technique for yourself right now with one of the introductory paintings used by the NYPD: Johannes Vermeer’s “Mistress and Maid.” Grab a pad of paper and something to write with, and then follow these steps, limiting yourself to just 15 minutes:

Step 1: Describe
Search online for a suitable image by Googling “Johannes Vermeer Mistress and Maid.” The painting is a bit of a mystery. The Frick describes the painting by saying, “The subject of writing and receiving letters, which recurs frequently in Vermeer’s work, is given an exceptional sense of dramatic tension in this painting of two women arrested in some moment of mysterious crisis."

You can find many pictures of this painting on Google Images. Select one you can view easily and clearly. (To save time, you can click on the image below to download a decent replica.)

Click here for larger image.

Scrutinize the painting. Working from the foreground to the background, describe in detail what you see. Refrain from interpreting or concluding. Your goal is to simply record all of the observable facts on paper. Hint: Take good notes and write down everything you see.

Step 2: Inquire
Ask and answer the “who, what, where, when, how, and why” of the piece. Who are these people? What is their story? What are they doing and why? Where is the scene taking place?

Step 3: Conclude
Based on your description and inquiry, use your notes and answers to weave a story.

If you completed steps 2 and 3, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but your genchi genbutsu is incomplete, and thus unsatisfactory. At least that’s what the Frick instructors would tell you. There are enough facts in this painting (well more than 50 details) to consume the entire 15 minutes.

The instructors at the Frick will give detectives 45 minutes just to document the facts, and they often list more than 80 details.

In workshops I facilitate, I find that it is difficult for most people to refrain from drawing conclusions. The majority choose to move into steps 2 and 3 after just a few minutes, and sometimes less than a minute!

This helps illustrate the natural inclination to leap to solutions, which are usually sloppy, rarely optimal, and nearly always inelegant.

Remember: Observe first... meticulously. Then, and only then, design a solution.

Go back to step 1 and work until you have exhausted the facts. Then, and only then, try your hand at the remaining steps.

My bet is you will come to a different conclusion, and perhaps a far more entertaining and engaging story, than you did the first time around.


About The Author

Matthew E. May’s picture

Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May counsels executives and teams through custom designed facilitation, coaching, and training using four basic ingredients: strategy, ideation, experimentation, and lean. He’s been counseling for 30 years, a third of it as a full-time advisor to Toyota. He is the author of four books, the latest The Laws of Subtraction (McGraw-Hill, 2013), and is working on his fifth book. His work has been appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and many other publications. May holds an MBA from The Wharton School and a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University.



Some twenty years ago or so, de-regulation was a principle in force throughout the economical and financial world: I wonder why, among the so many innovation-oriented words we use today, de-regulation has been ablated from any management dictionary. There's no need to use japanese expressions to describe what we know since we were born: The Mabinogion, an ancient cycle of celtic legends translated by Lady Charlotte Guest, is based on the principle "listen, learn, read on". There's reallly nothing much new under our Sun. Therefore, I have to repeat my suggestion: let's study History before putting forward ideas that seem new but that are not, instead.